Every Zachary Lazar book since Sway (2008), his hypnotic study of chance connections between the Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger and the Manson Family, creates its own genre. His book about the murder of his father in Phoenix in 1975, Evening’s Empire (2010), and his riveting new novel due out in February, Vengeance, pave new and compelling territory between fiction and non-fiction. In Vengeance, a narrator resembling Lazar grows fascinated with Kendrick King, a prisoner he’s met while attending the annual performance of a passion play at Angola prison in Louisiana who is serving life in prison for a crime he may not have committed. The narrator, handing out his own book about his own father’s murder and confessing that the story of the crime isn’t any of his business, launches a uneasy study of the events that landed Kendrick in prison, which leads him to meet and spend time with several important figures in Kendrick’s life. Books and Films from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of Colorblindness to Thirteen to the recent Crown Heights speak of a racist criminal justice system that disproportionally lands people of color in prison. By inserting a white narrator into a world of African-American characters and by taking on (with piercing clarity) their point of view in several key scenes, Lazar implicates all of us, regardless of race, in this ongoing American tragedy. I spoke to Lazar about his new novel.
David Winner (Rail) Can you describe the initial project with photographer, Deborah Luster, that brought you to Angola and how that grew from the photo essay in Brick into Vengeance?
Lazar: In 2013, Deborah and I had just met and we were drawn to do a collaboration because of the strange coincidence that linked our work, which deals with crime in various ways. Both of us came to that subject because we had a parent who was murdered. Both murders happened in Phoenix, Arizona. They were both contract killings. The same detective worked both cases. It seemed almost unbelievable that years later we would end up as neighbors in New Orleans, where neither of us is from. Deborah happened to be returning to the prison to shoot pictures of an all-inmate production of “The Life of Jesus Christ,” a passion play, and that obviously promised much ready-made thematic material for a collaborative project. Deborah told me not to do any preparation, to just let the experience happen. It was good advice. We ended up staying a whole week at the prison, sleeping in guest facilities there, and spending the days hanging out with the inmates as they rehearsed and then performed the play. I interviewed more than 40 incarcerated people and got to know several of them very well. I am still friends with some of them almost five years later. The experience had a profound effect on me, far more than I could capture in a single essay, and so Vengeance was an attempt to contain at least some of what I still had to say.
Rail: What relationship might you hope readers to intuit between yourself and your protagonist/narrator?
Lazar: No comment! [Laughs]
Rail: Many scenes in the novel portray something, which I think is pretty rare in America, a middle-class person who, as he writes, “in this time and place is called white” entering a working-poor African-American world. The narrator speaks of the “limits to how comfortably [he] could talk about incarceration with someone who had grown up with it as a familiar threat, or a stigma, or a reasonable possibility, simply because of the color of his skin.” Only sparingly, you tell the story from the point of view of black characters. Can you talk about your feelings and insights as a white writer delving into such racially fraught subject matter? In what way do you see Vengeance adding to the discussion of race and incarceration in America?
Lazar: I’m not sure how much a novel, especially a postmodern one, can reach the culture at large, but if nothing else, this book portrays a white person entering black spaces, engaging with many different black people, and making some friends, including one in prison. Writing across the racial divide is rightfully challenging because if you do it badly you enhance the division. As someone who is often sensitive to the point of paranoia, I did not take lightly the challenge of portraying black characters dealing with the criminal justice system and incarceration in various ways. But I do have friends in prison, and others who have been released from prison, and they have read my writing, and while I would never be complacent, I have also learned that there’s such a thing as oversensitivity and that it can be pernicious too. I hope people will just read the book, because I made these issues central to the story, rather than pushing them to the margins or pretending they don’t exist, and these issues are too complicated to talk about briefly—I would need 220 pages or more!
Rail: The narrator discovers “The House of Israel Hebrew Culture Center” in Meridian, Mississippi, a black Jewish organization, and speaks about the Old Testament and the notion of Vengeance with a man he meets here. The notion of Vengeance returns in a letter the narrator writes to a parole board and in a line you quote from Blake. Can you speak about the choice of title?
Lazar: The book on the simplest level is a critique of vengeance, which means the title is ironic. When I wrote the scene in the House of Israel Hebrew Culture Center, I had in mind Moby Dick a little, which sounds pretentious, but there was something about the odd swirl of irony and deep sincerity in that passage that added something mysterious to the book, something that saved it from being didactic. Like me, the narrator really does believe in a vengeful God out of the Old Testament, even as he thinks that the whole idea of such a God is totally ridiculous. On top of that, the communion in that scene between a white Jew and a black Jew seemed metaphorically of central importance. But vengeance is real. Look at who 63 million Americans voted for in 2016.
Rail: Do you have any thoughts about the election of Trump and his selection of Sessions as Attorney General, which must have happened about when you were finishing your book?
Lazar: I had already finished the book. I have nothing to say about those men.
Rail: The narrator shares a blistering memory of himself soon after his father’s murder, sleeping with a lacrosse stick by his bed in order to protect himself. How did your own father’s murder when you were child and your experience researching and writing about that event affect what would become Vengeance?
Lazar: My father’s murder was my passkey into Angola. It’s what made it possible for me to talk at such length and depth with the incarcerated people I met. We had a bond, in that we had all been impacted by violence. This enabled us to communicate on deeper frequencies than otherwise would have been possible, and very likely it’s what allowed me to get beneath the surface differences of race, class, education, geography, etc., and connect in a substantive way. There was an alchemy at work. I could feel the residue of my father’s murder transforming into an ability to make connections
Rail: Can you tell us a little about the class at Tulane that you’ve taught with both inmates and Tulane college students?
Lazar: This is an intro creative writing class with half Tulane students and half students who are incarcerated in Lafayette, LA. They do the same reading and writing assignments for a whole semester, exchanging work every week. I bring the Tulane students to the prison three times a semester, but the rest has to happen online, through a manuscript exchange and weekly video chats (each Tulane student is partnered with a student in Lafayette). It is chaotic and a lot of work, but the results are worth it. Both sides get a semester of interacting with the other side, and I try to make the assignments such that everyone has to reveal something of himself of herself, even if in disguise. They get to know a lot about each other.